Talking about growing sweet potatoes in Florida means that you must first get acquainted with this one tuber. Sweet potatoes, or Ipomoea batatas, are root vegetable members of the bindweed family. The hallmark of these tubers is the skin is purplish red or brown, depending on the cultivar.
The purple ones have a similarly colored flesh that turns deep purple when cooked. Meanwhile, the brown-colored skin ones have yellowish-orange flesh. Both have a delicious and sweet taste. Hence, no wonder people love to eat them as a source of carbohydrates quickly processed into various types of delicious snacks. With that being said, is growing sweet potatoes in Florida possible? Well, thankfully, it is!
Some farmers try to plant sweet potatoes as the demand is rising. Moreover, they are pretty easy to grow and care for. Despite having a slight tolerance to pests, you can conveniently eliminate them with natural or chemical pesticides.
If you don’t have a small area, they can also be planted with the help of wood vertically or even in pots. Interested in learning tips and tricks for growing and harvesting potatoes in Florida? Check out our gardening guide below!
Table of Contents
- How Do Sweet Potatoes Grow?
- When to Plant Sweet Potatoes in Florida?
- Growing Sweet Potatoes in Florida – Plant Care
- How To Plant Potatoes – Step By Step
- Useful Tips On Growing Sweet Potatoes Perfectly
- Sweet Potato Pests In Florida
- The Right Time and How To Harvest Sweet Potatoes
- What happens if you leave sweet potatoes in the ground too long?
How Do Sweet Potatoes Grow?
You may wonder how these tasty tubers grow. They grow from germination that occurs in mature sweet potatoes, called slips. These sweet potato sprouts usually appear to form like roots that develop from various sides of the tubers.
Generally, farmers plant sweet potato slips around 2-3 inches deep, leaving two leaves above the ground. Then, offer 10-14 inches apart between them on 3-feet rows to provide space for the sweet potato vines to crawl. The wider the distance, the bigger the tubers grow.
Moreover, sweet potatoes grow underground like other starch tubers. But, they do not rise from the stems. Instead, sweet potato plants develop from their roots. And for that reason, they are known as root vegetables.
In the process of growth, their roots will grow into nodes which eventually become sweet potatoes you can enjoy when ripe. As slow-growing plants, sweet potatoes need around four months until they are ready to harvest.
When to Plant Sweet Potatoes in Florida?
After a sneak peeks at Florida sweet potatoes, we would love to discuss when is the right time to plant these tasty tubers. You can start growing sweet potatoes from spring through early summer, particularly from mid-May to June, as they cannot tolerate frost.
During the seasons, sweet potatoes will have nice, warm temperatures (21-26’C) and humid air, as they prefer for at least 150 days (or about four months). The minimum night temperature must be at least 13’C (55’F).
Tips for planting them to grow well are to plant as early as possible to offer more time to grow. However, be careful with late spring frost, which can kill the vines.
However, the planting time of sweet potatoes in South Florida is a bit different as they have warmer weather. Some farmers suggest that they can grow sweet potatoes year round! But remember, sitting on the ground too long may invite unwanted pests to invade your gardens and fields.
Growing Sweet Potatoes in Florida – Plant Care
Before planting time, you must understand what factors that can influence sweet potato growth. Thus, you can prepare them in advance to ensure healthy plants and a bountiful harvest. There are four important elements you need to remember. What are those?
Temperature for sweet potatoes
Like other fruits and vegetables in general, temperatures are crucial factors affecting sweet potato growth. As warm-season tubers, they love warm weather with temperatures of around 70-79’F. And consequently, they are frost-sensitive. The vines can die from rotting of the roots when the temperature drops below 50’F. So, spring and early summer are the best seasons to plant sweet potatoes.
Sweet potatoes are sun-loving plants that require at least 8-10 hours of full sun exposure to thrive. Growing them in shady areas will result in smaller tubers or a more extended period to harvest. However, partial shade is still acceptable.
Watering and Fertilizing
These plants are water-loving and very thirsty. The slips need more water than the established plant (more than one inch per week). Hence, moderate watering is necessary to keep the soil moist.
To find out when is the right time to water sweet potato vines, check the soil surface. When it starts to dry and is followed by wilting leaves, it is time to offer them some water. Do not water the leaves, as it can encourage fungal growth.
Meanwhile, fertilizing sweet potatoes is not required unless they grow in poor soil conditions. You can give organic bone meal as a natural fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. If you overdo it with nitrogen-based fertilizer, you will have lush foliage and smaller tubers.
Regarding the soil requirements, sweet potatoes prefer light, sandy loam or silt loam with moist, well-drained soil to perform best. They can withstand rich and heavy ground, but the quality of the yields will be low even though there are lots of them. On the other hand, the light and sandy soil will produce more excellent tuber quality yet low products. If your soil tends to be compact and rigid, try planting the potatoes on the raised beds.
How To Plant Potatoes – Step By Step
The best time to plant the sweet potato slips is about 3-4 weeks after the last frost. During this time, the soil has begun to thaw, and the temperature has warmed.
Furthermore, this section will provide tips on how to grow sweet potatoes step by step to make it easier for you to understand and follow them. Are you ready? Check it out!
- Choose an area that receives bright direct sun exposure and required soil conditions.
- Make a long raised bed about 6-8 inches high. Ensure the mound is about 12 inches wide to provide space for the root to develop.
- Provide 3-feet space between one mound and another so that the vines can crawl freely on the ground.
- Make a hole 6 inches deep.
- Then, plant the slips on the mound when the weather is sunny. The air temperature should be around 21-26’C and a soil temperature of 15’C.
- Remove the lower leaves and keep the upper ones above ground level.
- Make sure that the roots and stems are completely buried in the soil, leaving the leaves sticking out above.
- Wait four months until the sweet potatoes are ready to be harvested.
- Don’t forget to water regularly for around 7-10 days until they are established.
Useful Tips On Growing Sweet Potatoes Perfectly
If you are wondering whether or not your sweet potato plants thrive, you better check out some tips on successfully growing these tasty tubers below! From watering, eradicating weeds, and pruning, we have gotten all covered here.
Provide more water for the new plants as they need it to grow. Generally, young sweet potatoes need more than one inch per week of watering. After they establish, you can reduce the water to prevent cracking on the skin. Don’t let them dry for too long, as it will stress them and influence the size of their tubers. In addition, soggy and wet soil will lead to root rot. So, an adequate amount of water is critical.
Sweet potatoes are prone to pests and diseases, including weeds. Hophornbeam copperleaf and pigweed are two types of common weeds that grow around these tubers. To eradicate it, you can apply herbicides like fluazifop and sethoxydim. They suppress the grass growth without harming the host plants.
Avoid Excessive Pruning
Pruning is generally intended to keep plants in shape. However, it is not the case with sweet potato vines. The vines also help feed the potatoes. Thus, excessive pruning should be avoided. If the trailing stems and dense leaves are truly bothersome, you can cut it back by 25% in the fall or around September.
Sweet Potato Pests In Florida
Even though they are easy to grow, it does not mean that they are free of troubles. Pests and diseases are one of the most common issues in growing sweet potatoes in Florida.
1. Sweet Potato Weevils (Cylas formicarius)
Cylas formicarius, or Sweet Potato Weevil, is the biggest threat to sweet potato farmers. The total damage caused by these insect pests can reach 97% of the entire agricultural land. What a foe! They damage the tubers by making small black holes and soggy textures.
In addition, the taste of the tubers becomes bitter. It also has a terpene smell due to the chemical reaction produced by these insects. Generally, farmers will use insecticides to eradicate these stubborn pests.
2. Flea Beetles (Alticini)
While the previous pest tends to attack the tubers, flea beetles prefer to feed on the sweet potato leaves. This winged insect has a body size of only 1-1.6 inches with a black and white mottled color that makes it stand out when perched on the leaves of the potatoes. They will leave brown holes on the leaves. Meanwhile, the larvae make winding tunnels on the tubers.
3. White Flies (Aleyrodidae)
Even though they are tiny (only about 15 mm), white flies can become one of the number one enemies of farmers because of the damage they do to their crops. They leave the sticky yellow excrement on the leaves, making them wilting. Not only that, but they also stunt your plants. To remove these culprits, you can prune the infected plant parts, spray them with water every morning and evening, and apply insecticides.
4. Whitefringed Beetles (Naupactus leucoloma Boheman)
What makes White Fringe Beetles one of the main enemies of sweet potato farmers is their larvae.
The larvae eat away at the roots and leave shallow to deep holes along the way. And even worse, they are difficult to eradicate because they are invested deep in the soil insecticides cannot reach. Usually, farmers will perform crop rotation to reduce the infestation of the pest.
The Right Time and How To Harvest Sweet Potatoes
Knowing the right timing for harvesting sweet potatoes is just as important as planting. Errors in harvesting may result in crop loss. In addition, the harvest method is also vital to get the best yields.
Therefore, we’ve summarize and briefly discuss the two essential aspects of harvesting sweet potatoes below.
The Right Time to Harvest Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potato planting time commonly lasts about 90-170 days (4 to 5 months), depending on the cultivars. However, you can observe the first sign of maturation from the yellowing of the leaves. You can try sampling by digging in one plant and checking them by that time.
If you provide adequate water and proper growing conditions, you can immediately harvest them within 100-110 days after planting. Usually, harvesting will start late summer to autumn before the frost arrives.
How to Harvest Sweet Potatoes
- Check out the leaves and vines. If they turn yellow, it is time to start harvesting the tubers.
- Cut the vines to make it easier for you to harvest sweet potatoes.
- Next, loosen up the soils around the plants, so they are not too compact and avoid injuring the roots.
- Then, carefully pull the primary crown while digging the soil with your hands to prevent physical damage to the tubers.
- Remove dirt and soil from the tubers by shaking them off.
- Don’t wash them with water, as it can increase the risks of bacterial decay.
- Harvest until before the first frost comes since they are sensitive to low temperatures.
What happens if you leave sweet potatoes in the ground too long?
We know sweet potatoes are summer crops that do not tolerate cold temperatures. They will freeze and die when the temperature falls below 32’F or 0’C. Therefore, leaving it above ground for a long time will damage the vines and roots, leaving them with internal decay storage.
However, the grapes will continue to grow when the temperature is still warm. The tubers will start sprouting with a soggy texture. However, this condition is not recommended because mature tubers invite pests to your gardens and nibble on the potatoes. You don’t want your front yard infested with uninvited guests, do you?